Managing in Iran
A Modern Welcome From an Ancient Country
Iran is an ethnically diverse Middle Eastern country, and is home to the Persian people – one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Because Iran has retained many of its ancient practices, you'll find a captivating juxtaposition of traditions and modern cities when you visit.
The country is only just emerging from years of prohibitive trade sanctions, so international commerce remains sparse, but it is growing. However, Iranians are a forward-thinking people who are keen to dispel the negative stereotypes that surround their country, and they want to improve business ties with other nations.
In this article, we'll explore how you can live and work successfully in Iran, whether you're managing a remote team, visiting on business, or working directly with Iranian team members.
Iran is situated in Asia, and is officially known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. It's the 18th largest country in the world, and it has the 18th largest economy. It covers 636,372 square miles, and borders Azerbaijan and Armenia to the north west, Turkmenistan to the north east, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the east, and Turkey and Iraq to the west. It also has coasts on the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the north.
Iran is situated in Asia, and shares borders with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iraq.
Tehran is Iran's capital city, and it's home to 8.3 million of the country's 80 million population. It's also the country's cultural, political and financial center.
Temperatures in Tehran regularly reach 30°C in August, dropping to 4°C in January, with most rainfall occurring between November and March. However, the country boasts a landscape of mountains, deserts, plains, and coasts, so the climate can vary tremendously. So, check the average temperature and rainfall statistics for the region you're visiting, and pack appropriate clothing. There is also a high risk of earthquakes across much of the country, so make sure that you're aware of your organization's emergency procedures before you arrive.
People don't tend to follow traffic laws in Iran, so it's often safer to hire a driver or take public transport, which is subsidized and inexpensive. Drivers don't give way to pedestrians, so take care when walking. And, when you need to take a cab, book with a reputable firm in advance, rather than hailing one on the street.
Foreign bank and credit cards aren't accepted in Iran, so make sure you carry enough cash. ATMs do exist in cities, but only for use with local cards. The currency is the Iranian Rial, and you can convert U.S. dollars or Euros for a charge.
History and Politics
Iran's political history and current situation are particularly sensitive. Make sure that you do your research and have a basic understanding of the country's history to avoid faux pas, and avoid bringing up the topic with Iranians in conversation.
During the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, which was led by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranians overthrew the Shah (king). As a result, Iran is a republic and a theocracy with no monarch, and it has both secular and religious leaders.
Iran tried to force the Shah's deportation from the U.S., which culminated in more than 60 employees at the American embassy in Tehran being held hostage for 444 days.
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, and the two countries remained at war until 1988. Since then, Iran has also been involved in several other Middle Eastern conflicts, such as the Iran-PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) Conflict, the Syrian Civil War, and the Iranian intervention in Iraq.
Iran has been subject to strict international trade sanctions for decades. Some were imposed after the U.S. hostage crisis, and more were added as a result of the country's suspected manufacture of atomic weapons. However, Iran agreed to scale down its nuclear activities in exchange for lifting the sanctions, beginning on January 16, 2016. As a result, key secular leaders in Iran are keen to foster relationships with the rest of the world, while some senior religious leaders oppose this approach.
Culture and Religion
Iranians are generally warm-hearted, respectful and polite. The majority of them are forward thinking, despite the country being steeped in ancient history and traditional lifestyles. The large youthful population is college-educated, openly critical of government, and keen to do business with you.
While Iran is a Shi'a Muslim country, people practice other religions openly and freely, with the exception of Baha'i, which is viewed as heretical. For example, in Tehran, you will find Sunni Muslim mosques alongside churches, synagogues and kosher butchers.
Iranians place a high value on family. Family members are expected to support one another, and children tend to live with their parents into adulthood. Iranians also take care of their elderly relatives.
For many, a good education is seen as a passport to a high-paying job. Competition for these jobs is fierce, so young people study hard to get accepted into the best universities.
Make sure that you're familiar with the Iranian concept of "taarof" – a system of polite generosity that can extend well beyond a person's ability to provide what he or she is offering. The trick is to refuse politely until you reach a reasonable compromise.
Iran's official language is Persian, also known as Farsi, and it's spoken by more than half of the population. Although English is widely spoken in business circles, hiring an interpreter is often a good idea.
|Welcome||Khosh amadid||H-wosh Ahh-ma-deed|
|How are you?||Hale shoma chetor ast?||Hol-ay sho-ma ch-e-tor ast?|
|I'm fine, thanks||Man khoobam, Mamnoon||Man ch-hoo-bam, man-noon|
|Good morning||Sobh bekheir||Sow-b bech-hey|
|Thank you very much||Mamnūnam||Maam moo naam|
|Good night||Shab bekheir||Shaab bech-hey|
|What's your name?||Esm e shoma chist?||Esem a shomaaa-shist|
|My name is…||Esm e man…||Esem a maan…|
Working in Iran
All Iranian workers have employment contracts with their organizations, and they are entitled to a basic minimum wage.
They are also entitled to four weeks' paid vacation a year, in addition to approximately 22 national holidays per year. Iranians usually take vacations between early July and early September, when few business people are in the office.
An average working day is eight hours long, making up 40 hours per week, after which overtime is paid. The Iranian working week runs from Saturday through to Wednesday, and employees are required to work for another four hours on Thursdays. Friday is the day of rest, and people are entitled to a paid day off. Bear in mind that banks, government offices, and public organizations are closed on Thursdays and Fridays.
- Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution – February 11.
- Martyrdom of Hazrat Fatemeh – Date changes each year (February 9 in 2019.)
- Nationalization of Oil Industry – Date changes each year (March 20 in 2018.)
- Noruz (Persian New Year) – March 21-24.
- Imam Ali's Birthday – Date changes each year (March 30 in 2018.)
- Islamic Republic Day – Date changes each year (April 1 in 2018.)
- Sizdehbedar (Nature Day) – Date changes each year (April 2 in 2018.)
- Labor Day – May 1.
- The Prophet's Ascension – Date changes each year (April 13 in 2018.)
- Imam Mahdi's Birthday – Date changes each year (May 2 in 2018.)
- Anniversary of Imam Khomeini's Death – June 4.
- Martyrdom Imam Ali – Date changes each year (June 6 in 2018.)
- Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan) – Date changes each year (June 15-16 in 2018.)
- Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) – Date changes each year (August 21 in 2018.)
- Ashura – Date changes each year (September 20 in 2018.)
- Arbaeen – Date changes each year (October 29 in 2018.)
- Martyrdom Imam Reza – Date changes each year (November 8 in 2018.)
- Milad un Nabi Birth of the Prophet Muhammed – Date changes each year, and Sunnis celebrate five days earlier (November 25 in 2018.)
Respect local and national customs and religious practices, especially the holy month of Ramadan. Do not eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours at this time, as this is forbidden.
Business dress is smart and conservative for both men and women. In public, women should cover their heads with a headscarf, wear trousers or a long skirt, and a long-sleeved coat that reaches to the knee. Men should wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. Women may be asked to don a "chador" at particular religious sites – this will cover the whole body.
Relationships are illegal between non-Muslim men and Muslim women, as is homosexual behavior, adultery and sexual relations outside of marriage. The penalties for participating in these activities in Iran are severe.
Consuming alcohol is strictly forbidden, except for the members of certain recognized religious minorities. Individuals who are convicted of drug offences have been executed in the past, including foreign nationals.
Arrive on time, but don't expect your Iranian team members to do the same. Make appointments well in advance, and confirm in writing to avoid frustration or misunderstandings.
When meeting face-to-face, a formal handshake is appropriate. However, a man must wait for a woman to extend her hand first. If she doesn't, a nod and a smile is appropriate. Before business discussions begin, a certain amount of social chat or small talk is expected, and you will likely be offered tea or fruit. So, follow your Iranian colleagues' lead, and move onto business matters after these pleasantries.
Iranians are fast becoming devotees of the Internet and social media, but networks are often subject to state control and regulation. So, it's common to use VPNs to ensure full access to the Web.
Getting Down to Business
Business in Iran is personal, and success is often determined by social groups. So, taking the time to get to know your business associates is essential for getting ahead. Many businesses are family run, so ask politely about a person's health and family.
Don't be afraid to ask for favors, and expect to go the extra mile for your Iranian team members in return. People love to haggle in Iran, so expect long negotiations, and be aware that throwing in an "extra" or "freebie" will go a long way.
Gifts are not necessary in business in Iran. However, if you're invited to a team member's home, flowers will be appreciated. Be careful not to give gifts that contain alcohol or pork, though.
See our article on Gifts in the Workplace for things to be careful of when giving gifts. In particular, take care to understand anti-corruption laws, and to respect your company's policies on the subject. For example, in the U.S., the legal distinction between a gift and a bribe is not completely clear. See the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for more information. And, the U.K.'s Bribery Act 2010 explains what constitutes a bribe in Britain, and for any British company operating overseas, regardless of location.
Conflict and Safety
It's important to recognize that Iran was a country in flux for many years, and relationships with the U.S. and the U.K. remain highly sensitive. The U.S. State Department has extensive guidance on visiting Iran, particularly for dual nationality Iranian-Americans, who are at higher risk of charges of posing a threat to national security than other visitors.
Carefully consider whether you need to travel within Iran, and avoid the Baluchistan border near Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Kurdish north west of the country, and areas near the Iraqi border. These locations are unsafe because they are home to religious and ethnic minority groups that the Iranian government is accused of repressing.
If you're representing a U.S. or U.K. organization, you may be subject to particular attention from the authorities. Using a laptop or other electronic device in a public place could be misinterpreted as espionage, so use them in the privacy of your hotel, apartment or office.
Remain sensible and vigilant when working in Iran. Be highly respectful of local customs, avoid mass gatherings or political protests, and leave an area if you feel unsafe.
The U.S. has no embassy in Iran, so it has limited ability to assist its citizens. However, the Swiss Embassy offers protection for U.S. citizens, although it cannot help Iranian-Americans.
Iran is an emerging market, which has recently had restrictive international trade sanctions removed. It's still recovering from years of political unrest, but Iranians are polite, hospitable, well educated, and keen to do business internationally.
Manage your Iranian team members successfully by respecting their culture and religious practices, and by recognizing the importance of creating social relationships in business.